Or, the streetside scene at Tavalin Bagels in Sanlitun, Beijing
You too can buy an "E-Egg" electric 'car' for under US$1,500 at Beijing Riders' online shop
This is what happens when you wait a week to post: You forget everything.
So the final Living Below the Line post will be missing some crucial details – a breakdown of food costs.
During the Living Below the Line challenge, I scrawled recipes on Post-Its. They were strewn around the kitchen and on the fridge. I never use recipes, but these were different: next to every ingredient was a calculation of how much it cost, by the teaspoon or tablespoon, or by the cup. After a few days I found my favorite ingredients were out – because they were too expensive. As the week went on, and I got hungrier, three tablespoons of sunflower oil for 1RMB started to look a lot more appealing than a tablespoon of olive oil for the same price.
These bargain bin apples were a find: just 1 kuai per jin! (about 15 cents a pound)
The apples made a delicious breakfast every morning. Fast fuel for the day: bargain bin apples, extra-filling oats, a dollop of coconut milk, and freshly-grated Chinese cinnamon bark. Total cost: about 2.5RMB (40 cents)
A favorite dinner: red lentils at 1RMB per serving (15 cents) made a filling meal with "Italian taste pepperoni". Total cost: about 3.5RMB (60 cents) for a small bowl of dense deliciousness.
This "pepperoni taste" meat was the cheapest option I could find for (safe-ish) packaged meat at 13.50RMB per packet. I don't eat much meat in China, but craved it after a few days.
Most people in Western countries who were living below the line, weren't able to afford greens. But in Chinese cuisine greens are essential, and are available here year round at rock-bottom prices.
Like these, just 1RMB (15 cents) for 4
Living Below the Line is a first-world experiment, but there are times when it's good to remember what hunger feels like, and give some of the excess to places that can use it a lot more than we do.
It wakes you up in the middle of the night, and stays with you in the morning. You can ignore it but have to move slowly just to keep going. Sluggish, then euphoric after a shot of caffeine – or another drug to keep hunger at bay.
This was how I started smoking, half a lifetime ago when I was nineteen**. Not because it was cool, or because my friends did (they did), but because I was hungry and broke. Every day, for a year. And though I worked at a sandwich shop to pay rent and save for school, I had no idea how to cook anything but a can of soup. Smoking a few cigarettes was cheaper and more fun than an extra can of Campbell's.
(This was before I discovered ramen and coffee, which kept me going through university.)
Now I'm living below the poverty line for just five days, and the hunger has returned. The first day or two, it set me on edge with a constant thirst. When I downed a glass of water in three seconds flat, the Better Half looked up from his Nietzsche and said, "That's because your body's breaking down its own protein."
I experimented with combinations of cheap local protein and fats to fill up - eggs and sesame and oil – but still didn't get enough calories in. The May Day holiday in Beijing was warm and bright, so we biked to our favorite park. I burned through caloric reserves and wobbled on the way back.
But on the menu was the most satisfying dish I've made during the challenge, inspired by A Girl Called Jack. It's such a simple recipe that even the clueless 19-year-old me could've made it.
Beijing Bubbles and Squeaks
What I eat has to look as good as it tastes: the more colors, the better.
I've taken this British classic and used the cheapest ingredients from the markets of east Beijing,
and added sweet potatoes for an extra burst of color and nutrition.
2 potatoes (2RMB)
1/4 sweet potato (.33RMB)
1/4 cabbage (.5RMB)
1 tired old green pepper from the bargain bin (.25RMB)
2 eggs from the Egg Lady (2RMB)
1/2 cup white flour (.25RMB)
3TB sunflower oil (.75RMB)
20g Beijing cheese (2RMB)
1/2 bulb garlic (.25RMB)
lots of local salt (.1RMB)
Total cost: 2.81RMB per serving (45 cents)
* Boil root vegetables in salted water, then mash.
* Mix all the ingredients together, make into patties, and fry in as much oil as you can afford.
* Serve hot and be sure to keep half the mix for tomorrow.
** 6 years ago I quit smoking – on the day I moved to Hong Kong.
+ I'm supporting the Somaly Mam foundation of Cambodia with this project. So can you: http://www.livebelowtheline.com/donations/new?lang=en&participant_id=23563
The rules of the Living Below the Line challenge say that 'tap water is free'.
Lucky are those who can drink water from the tap. We have an Aquasana filter. My favorite glass was once a jar of sesame paste.
Today I picked up some more, from a man with a van at the market.
He grinds the sesame seeds inside the van. The paste and oil fresh are every day.
His neighbor even had a mini sesame grinder.
Another character at the market is the egg lady. She's good with the hard sell.
- Look how big these eggs are, they're delicious! she cries
She's always calling me over to see her wares. I don't usually buy eggs, but this week is an exception.
Instead of taking the subway home, I indulged in some private transport: an electric rickshaw. The best way to enjoy a beautiful late afternoon on the highway.
The driver and I agreed on a price. Then, when I got out, he tried to charge more than double.*
He yelled and grabbed my bag when I walked away, shouting and waving at passersby to get attention. When they queried him about how far we'd come, they sided with me.
In the end, only two eggs were broken.
Breakfast and lunch were identical meals and portions to yesterday.
Dinner was a bowl of fat noodles. I added more oil than I would usually, to fill up for the evening.
Starving Artist Sesame Noodles
1 packet udon noodles (1.50RMB)
1 egg (1RMB)
1/2 tablespoon sesame paste (.17RMB)
1/2 tablespoon sunflower oil (.13RMB)
1/2 head fresh garlic (.25RMB)
1 small green pepper, slightly shrivelled, from the low-end pile at the market (.13RMB)
Sriracha chili sauce to taste (.1RMB)
Squirt Sicilian lemon juice (.1RMB)
Dinner: 3.38RMB or 54 cents
Lunch, hummus with homemade Sichuan pepper bread: 3.23 RMB or 53 cents
Breakfast smoothie and coffee: 2.81RMB or 45.5 cents
[photo of dinner to come when Flickr becomes cooperative again]
Due to a miscalculation with dinner, I was OVER today by 2.5 cents! A hungry brain misfiring…better luck tomorrow.
* The second time in a week a driver's blown up the price upon arrival.